- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
Everyone loves pandas, but Americans may be a little too obsessed. On Dec. 1, the Smithsonian National Zoo announced that its resident panda cub — who had just celebrated her first 100 days on Earth — would be named "Bao Bao," based on the results of online ballots cast by more than 123,000 people around the world. In the media blitz that followed — which included national television coverage and a write-up in the New York Times — one Chinese news outlet has declared the U.S. fascination with pandas "almost impossible to believe."
This was no passing remark: The Dec. 4 article in the Communist Party paper Beijing Youth Daily stood out among China’s sometimes shoddily-researched, state-run media with its convincing, sourced points. The paper noted that Chinese pandas on loan to the zoo in Washington, D.C. have drawn visitors from around the country, and that even frequent treks to see the pandas at the zoo "could not satisfy the demand" of the American people, some of whom watch the adorable symbols of U.S.-China friendship online via a newly-installed Giant Panda Cam. Pandas "easily find their way into the pages of major, mainstream U.S. papers," wrote the paper with evident amazement, "on their birthdays, 100-day celebrations, or even when they get headaches."
America’s panda obsession — U.S.-based news agency UPI reported the then-unnamed Bao Bao’s uneventful first check-up on Aug. 25 — has long fascinated and bewildered Chinese people. In Feb. 2010, the major news site China Youth Online reported that Chinese found it "hard to understand" why fans in the United States were "brokenhearted" over the return to China of a giant panda named Tai Shan. Villagers living just miles from Tai Shan’s new home in central Sichuan province, the article pointed out, did not care: One of the bear’s new neighbors told China Youth Online that despite his proximity to the panda center, he had only seen the animals on television, explaining, "They have nothing to do with my life." In an attempt to explain foreigners’ fixation with China’s national symbol, the article observed that pandas are objectively "adorable," and also that the online broadcast of Tai Shan’s birth may have led its many U.S. viewers to feel a connection to the cub.
The Beijing Youth Daily article focused on Bao Bao’s role in so-called "panda diplomacy," China’s practice of loaning the endangered animals to other countries as a symbol of friendship. The fact that both the U.S. and Chinese first ladies sent their congratulations on the Dec. 1 naming ceremony was "a first," Chen Mingming, a former Chinese ambassador to New Zealand and Sweden, told the Beijing Youth Daily. Panda diplomacy was a meaningful part of the development of China-U.S. relations, Chen argued, starting with the arrival of pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China after 25 years of separation. "Especially when difficulties are encountered, pandas can tie together two countries’ governments, peoples, and even business sectors," Chen said. In a recent Washington Post editorial, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai called Bao Bao China’s "second ambassador."
That’s a lot to ask of little Bao Bao, who weighed fewer than 12 pounds as of her Dec. 1 naming. At least the cub has gotten a reprieve from the spotlight: According to the National Zoo, she will not make a public appearance until January 2014. In the meantime, visitors and residents of the U.S. capital can visit her mom, Mei Xiang, continuing a national tradition that still has many Chinese scratching their heads.